Politically a state that has long suffered from governmental neglect leading to frustration and extremism among its youth, scientifically the state with the highest ratio of AIDS cases in the country, Manipur is artistically a class apart, justifying the jewel in its name. The state whose typical dance form entranced Tagore still nurtures a living continuum of artistic traditions which retain their essential place in society. In urban India the arts have become steadily marginalized due to the pressures of money and what passes for modernity. Newspapers cut down space devoted to the arts, considering them peripheral to city life. In Manipur, however, the arts remain integrally related to daily living, just as every part of every ritual there has a specific meaning of which performer and spectator are conscious, unlike the city slicker who knows not the significance of corresponding details in his life, having lost direct contact with them.

Certainly in the realm of theatre no Indian state compares with Manipur. The high number of quality productions emanating from there appears quite disproportionate to Manipur’s small size and population (one-tenth of Calcutta’s). But this phenomenon does not surprise any longer when one sees how closely linked theatre is with the social activities of the people. Virtually every temple in Imphal has a mandap adjoining it, which is used for community occasions of all kinds, from religious festivities and meals to secular performances organized by the numerous Manipuri cultural bodies.

Among the many voluntary organizations engaged in artistic pursuits, the two-year-old Forum for Laboratory Theatres of Manipur has begun conducting research into the performance traditions of the state, combining study of the interrelated literary, dance, music, art and architectural styles with systematic analysis of the various ethnic theatrical forms. The Forum felt that this, in turn, would help further development of contemporary Manipuri theatre. It is also doing exemplary work in inculcating awareness of neighbouring literatures by exposing promising Manipuri playwrights to the state of the drama in other Indian languages by inviting specialists to talk on these matters.

Under the supervision of its President, Lokendra Arambam, himself one of Manipur’s leading theatre directors and theorists, the Forum has taken under its wing seven three-year research projects headed by young theatre practitioners belonging to different Manipuri troupes. Through a grant from the Ford Foundation, these seven teams receive sufficient funding so as to enable them to devote full-time work on these projects without the anxiety of having to worry about finances—the bugbear of Indian theatre groups.

The projects representatively encompass the diversity of areas in which Manipuri theatre has strong indigenous roots. Aryan Theatre, for instance, the most historically important company in the growth of modern Manipuri theatre, has chosen as its subject the development of ethno-dramaturgy. Already well advanced under project director Dr N. Premchand, Aryan’s current production of Chingnung-gi Thawai moulds an existing script by A. Somorendra after closely researching the socio-political background of the story. This thoughtful work probes the misunderstanding between Meiteis and an isolated community in western Manipur after a violent incident at the time of the British Raj, and concludes that British “divide and rule” policy plus other vested interests created this inter-tribal tension that still prevails.

The other groups have undertaken equally, some perhaps more, difficult projects. The unit functioning from Kalakshetra (the troupe founded by senior Manipuri director H. Kanhailal) has taken on Manipuri martial arts in actor training, a vital ground of interaction in which Manipur has a lot to offer. Similarly, Paradise Theatre has selected the development of ethno-methodology in actor training, while Panthoibi Natya Mandir specializes in clown traditions in Manipuri theatre. Both these latter teams have prepared interesting theatrical presentations based on the work they are doing.

The three remaining projects deal with areas other than acting. Important backstage inputs like indigenous theatre design and indigenous theatre music—which ultimately account for so much of the aesthetic beauty of Manipuri productions—form the research topics of Banian Theatre Repertory and Progressive Artistes Laboratory respectively. The Lilong Chajing Youth Community Cultural Centre is exploring the festival forms in Manipuri theatre, the interdisciplinary sphere where art and religion overlap. Private and public agencies should fund similar research into the multifarious performance genres in every Indian state.

In order to encourage exchange of ideas between groups as well as from experts outside Manipur, the Forum recently organized a two-week national workshop on body motion communication, “in view of the traditional, inherent connection of Manipur performing art with subtle, beautiful use of the body.” Despite the rich heritage of body language in the different modes of martial art (such as Thang Ta), devotional dance (like Nata Sankirtana) or annual festivals (like Lai Haraoba), the Forum realizes the lack of any modern scientific analysis of the kinesiology of the martial artist, dancer or actor in Manipur. This workshop aimed to move toward filling this basic gap in understanding.

As an objective observer, this correspondent was happily astonished by the rigorous dedication that went into the planning and implementation of the workshop, held simultaneously at four separate venues in Imphal. The Forum meant business. Vigorous improvisation sessions for actors started at six in the morning daily. Several local Gurus and Ojhas made themselves available for discussions and demonstrations in the late morning. More formal lectures and seminars on theoretical affairs occupied the afternoons, and in the evenings presentations by the project groups took the stage. There could not have been a tighter schedule of time management, drawing optimal benefit for the workers eager to learn the utmost about the subject. Organizers of seminars and conferences elsewhere in India could take a few leaves out of the Forum’s book.

(From The Telegraph, 1 January 1993)